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Old April 5th 06, 12:52 PM posted to rec.aviation.piloting
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Default Pacific Clipper - The long way home

The saga of the China Clipper. A bit lengthy but a great read.

The Long Way Home

Here's another great book on the saga, it's available online from and others. (By Ed Dover, Paladwr Press-third printing
2003). There's much more to the story than the brief account below.

This is an odyssey that one might print and read as a "bedtime story."

It reads like a novel. It is about a Pan American clipper (passenger

sea plane) that was enroute from the USA to Australia when they

received a teletype message about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The

story relates their circuitous route back to the US. It is a throw

back to the trials of early aviation.

Round The World Saga" of the "Pacific Clipper"

By John A. Marshall

December 7, 1941.

The first blush of dawn tinged the eastern sky and sent its rosy

fingers creeping onto the flight deck of the huge triple-tailed flying

boat as she cruised high above the South Pacific. Six days out of her

home port of San Francisco, the Boeing 314 was part of Pan American

Airways' growing new service that linked the far corners of the

Pacific Ocean. With veteran captain Robert Ford in command, the

Pacific Clipper, carrying 12 passengers and a crew of ten was just a

few hours from landing in the harbor at Auckland, New Zealand.

The calm serenity of the flight deck early on this spring morning

was suddenly shattered by the crackling of the radio. Radio Operator

John Poindexter clamped the headset to his ears as he deciphered the

coded message. His eyes widened as he quickly wrote the characters on

the pad in front of him. Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japanese

war planes and had suffered heavy losses; the United States was at

war. The stunned crew looked at each other as the implications of the

message began to dawn.

They realized that their route back to California was irrevocably

cut,and there was no going back. Ford ordered radio silence, and then

posted lookouts in the navigator's blister; two hours later, the

Pacific Clipper touched down smoothly on the waters of Auckland

harbor. Their odyssey was just beginning. The crew haunted the

overwhelmed communications room at the US Embassy in Auckland every

day for a week waiting for a message from Pan Am headquarters in New

York. Finally they received word -- they were to try and make it back

to the United States the long way: around the world westbound. For

Ford and his crew, it was a daunting assignment. Facing a journey of

over 30,000 miles, over oceans and lands that none of them had ever

seen, they would have to do all their own planning and servicing,

scrounging whatever supplies and equipment they needed.

All this in the face of an erupting World War in which political

alliances and loyalties in many parts of the world were uncertain at

best. Their first assignment was to return to Noumea, back the way

they had come over a week earlier. They were to pick up the Pan

American station personnel there, and then deliver them to safety in

Australia. Late on the evening of December 16th, the blacked out

flying boat lifted off from Auckland harbor and headed northwest

through the night toward Noumea. They maintained radio silence,

landing in the harbor just as the sun was coming up. Ford went ashore

and sought out the Pan Am Station Manager. "Round up all your

people," he said, "I want them all at the dock in an hour. They can

have one small bag apiece."

The crew set to work fuelling the airplane, and exactly two hours

later, fully fuelled and carrying a barrel of engine oil, the Clipper

took off and pointed her nose south for Australia.

It was late in the afternoon when the dark green smudge of the

Queensland coast appeared in the windscreen, and Ford began a gentle

descent for landing in the harbor at Gladstone. After offloading

their bewildered passengers, the crew set about seeing to their

primary responsibility, the Pacific Clipper. Captain Ford recounted.

"I was wondering how we were going to pay for everything we were going

to need on this trip. We had money enough for a trip to Auckland and

back to San Francisco, but this was a different story. In Gladstone a

young man who was a banker came up to me and out of the blue said,

"How are you fixed for money?" "Well, we're broke!" I said. He said,

"I'll probably be shot for this," but he went down to his bank on a

Saturday morning, opened the vault and handed me five hundred American


Since Rod Brown, our navigator, was the only one with a lock box

and a key we put him in charge of the money. That $500 financed the

rest of the trip all the way to New York.

Ford planned to take off and head straight northwest, across the

Queensland desert for Darwin, and then fly across the Timor Sea to the

Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), hoping that Java and Sumatra

remained in friendly hands. The next day, as they droned into the

tropical morning the coastal jungle gradually gave way to great arid

stretches of grassland and sand dunes. Spinnifex and gum trees

covered the landscape to the horizon. During the entire flight to

Darwin the crew didn't see a river big enough to set down the big

flying boat should anything go wrong. Any emergency would force them

to belly land the airplane onto the desert, and their flight would be


They approached the harbor at Darwin late in the afternoon,

massive thunderheads stretched across the horizon, and continuous

flashes of lightning lit up the cockpit. The northernmost city in

Australia,Darwin was closest to the conflict that was spreading

southward like a brushfire. A rough frontier town in the most remote

and primitive of the Australian territories, it was like something out

of a wild west movie. After they had landed, the Pacific Clipper crew

was offered a place to shower and change. Much to their amusement

their 'locker room' turned out to be an Australian Army brothel.

Ford and his crew set about fueling the airplane. It was a

lengthy, tiresome job. The fuel was stored in five gallon jelly cans.

Each one had to be hauled up over the wing and emptied into the tanks.

It was past midnight before they were finished. They managed a few

hours of restful sleep before takeoff, but Ford was anxious to be

under way.

News of the progress of the Japanese forces was sketchy at best.

They were fairly certain that most of the Dutch East Indies was still

in friendly hands, but they could not dally.

Early the next morning they took off for Surabaya, fourteen

hundred miles to the west across the Timor Sea. The sun rose as they

droned on across the flat turquoise sea. Soon they raised the eastern

islands of the great archipelago of east Java. Rude thatch-roofed

huts dotted the beaches. The islands were carpeted with the lush green

jungle of the tropics.

Surabaya lay at the closed end of a large bay in the Bali Sea.

The second largest city on the island of Java, it was guarded by a

British garrison and a squadron of Bristol Beaufort fighters. As the

Pacific Clipper approached the city, a single fighter rose to meet

them. Moments later it was joined by several more. The recognition

signals that Ford had received in Australia proved to be inaccurate,

and the big Boeing was a sight unfamiliar to the British pilots. The

crew tensed as the fighters drew closer. Because of a quirk in the

radio systems, they could hear the British pilots, but the pilots

could not hear the Clipper. There was much discussion among them as

to whether the flying boat should be shot down or allowed to land. At

last the crew heard the British controller grant permission for them

to land, and then add, "If they do a anything suspicious, shoot them

out of the sky!" With great relief, Ford began a very careful


As they neared the harbor, Ford could see that it was filled with

warships, so he set the Clipper down in the smooth water just outside

the harbor entrance. "We turned around to head back," Ford said.

"There was a launch that had come out to meet us, but instead of

giving us a tow or a line, they stayed off about a mile and kept

waving us on. Finally when we got further into the harbor they came

closer. It turned out that we had landed right in the middle of a

minefield, and they weren't about to come near us until they saw that

we were through it!"

When they disembarked the crew of the Pacific Clipper received an

unpleasant surprise. They were told that they would be unable to

refuel with 100 octane aviation gas. What little there was severely

rationed, and was reserved for the military. There was automobile gas

in abundance however, and Ford was welcome to whatever he needed. He

had no choice. The next leg of their journey would be many hours over

the Indian Ocean, and there was no hope of refueling elsewhere. The

flight engineers, Swede Roth and Jocko Parish, formulated a plan that

they hoped would work. They transferred all their remaining aviation

fuel to the two fuselage tanks, and filled the remaining tanks to the

limit with the lower octane automobile gas.

"We took off from Surabaya on the 100 octane, climbed a couple of

thousand feet, and pulled back the power to cool off the engines,"

said Ford. "Then we switched to the automobile gas and held our

breaths. The engines almost jumped out of their mounts, but they ran.

We figured it was either that or leave the airplane to the Japs."

They flew northwesterly across the Sunda Straits, paralleling the

coast of Sumatra. Chasing the setting sun, they started across the

vast expanse of ocean. They had no aviation charts or maps for this

part of the world. The only navigational information available to the

crew was the latitude and longitude of their destination at

Trincomalee, on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Using this

data, and drawing from memory, Rod Brown was creating his own Mercator

maps of South Asia. Ford was not only worried about finding the

harbor. He was very concerned about missing Ceylon altogether. He

envisioned the Clipper droning on over India, lost and low on fuel,

unable to find a body of water on which to land. As they neared the

island they could see a cloud bank ahead. Ford said, "There was some

low scud", so we descended. We wanted the maximum available

visibility to permit picking up landfall at the earliest moment. We

didn't want to miss the island. All of a sudden there it was, right

in front of us. A Jap submarine! We could see the crew running for

the deck gun. Let me tell you we were pretty busy getting back into

the scud again!

Ford jammed the throttles of the Clipper forward to climb power,

the engines complaining bitterly. Their 150 mph speed soon had them

well out of range of the sub's guns, and the crew heaved a sigh of

relief. It would be difficult to determine who was the more

surprised; the Japanese submarine commander or the crew of the

Clipper, startled out of their reverie after the long flight.

It was another hour until they reached the island, and the Boeing

finally touched water in the harbor at Trincomalee. The British

Forces stationed there were anxious to hear what Ford and his crew had

to report from the war zone to the east, and the crew was duly

summoned to a military meeting. Presiding was a pompous Royal Navy

Commodore who informed Ford in no uncertain terms that he doubted Ford

would know a submarine if it ran over him. Ford felt the hackles rise

on the back of his neck. He realized that he could not afford to make

an enemy of the British military. The fate of the Pacific Clipper

rested too heavily in their hands. He swallowed hard and said


It was Christmas Eve when they began the takeoff from Ceylon and

turned the ship again to the northwest. The heavily loaded Boeing

struggled for altitude, laboring through the leaden humid air.

Suddenly there was a frightening bang as the number three engine let

go. It shuddered in its mount, and as they peered through the

windscreen the crew could see gushes of black oil pouring back over

the wing. Ford quickly shut the engine down, and wheeled the Clipper

over into a 180 degree turn, heading back to Trincomalee. Less than

an hour after takeoff the Pacific Clipper was back on the waters of

Trincomalee Harbor. The repairs to the engine took the rest of

Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day. One of the engine's eighteen

cylinders had failed, wrenching itself loose from its mount. While

the repair was not particularly complex, it was tedious and

time-consuming. Finally early in the morning of December 26th, they

took off from Ceylon for the second time. All day they droned across

the lush carpet of the Indian sub continent, and then cut across the

northeastern corner of the Arabian Sea to their landing in Karachi,

touching down in mid-afternoon.

The following day, bathed and refreshed, they took off and flew

westward across the Gulf of Oman toward Arabia. After just a bit over

eight routine hours of flying, they landed in Bahrain, where there was

a British garrison.

Another frustration presented itself the following morning as

they were planning the next leg of their journey. They had planned to

fly straight west across the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea into

Africa, a flight that would not have been much longer than the leg

they had just completed from Karachi.

"When we were preparing to leave Bahrain we were warned by the

British authorities not to fly across the Arabian peninsula," said

Ford. "The Saudis had apparently already caught some British fliers

who had been forced down there. The natives had dug a hole, buried

them in it up to their necks, and just left them."

They took off into the grey morning and climbed through a solid

overcast. They broke out of the clouds into the dazzling sunshine,

and the carpet of clouds below stretched westward to the horizon. "We

flew north for about twenty minutes," Ford said, "then we turned west

and headed straight across Saudia Arabia. We flew for several hours

before there was a break in the clouds below us, and damned if we

weren't smack over the Mosque at Mecca! I could see the people

pouring out of it, it was just like kicking an anthill. They were

probably firing at us, but at least they didn't have any


The Pacific Clipper crossed the Red Sea and the coast of Africa in

the early afternoon with the Saharan sun streaming in the cockpit

windows. The land below was a dingy yellowish brown, with nothing but

rolling sand dunes and stark rocky out-croppings. The only sign of

human habitation was an occasional hut. Every so often they flew over

small clusters of men tending livestock who stopped and shielded their

eyes from the sun, staring up at the strange bird that made such a

noise. The crew's prayers for the continued good health of the four

Wright Cyclones became more and more fervent. Should they have to make

an emergency landing here they would be in dire straits indeed.

Late in the afternoon they raised the Nile River, and Ford turned

the ship to follow it to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles,

just below Khartoum. They landed in the river, and after they were

moored the crew went ashore to be greeted by the now familiar

hospitality of the Royal Air Force. Ford's plan was to continue

southwest to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo and begin their South

Atlantic crossing there. He had no desire to set out across the

Sahara. A forced landing in that vast trackless wasteland would not

only render the aircraft forever immobile, but the crew would surely

perish in the harshness of the desert.

Early the next morning they took off from the Nile for

Leopoldville. This was to be a particularly long overland flight, and

they wanted to leave plenty of daylight for the arrival. They would

land on the Congo River at Leopoldville, and from there would strike

out across the South Atlantic for South America.

The endless brown of the Sudan gave way to rolling green hills,

and then rocky crests that stretched across their path. They flew over

native villages, and great gatherings of wildlife. Herds of

wildebeest, hundreds of thousands strong, stampeded in panic as the

Clipper roared overhead. The grassland soon turned to jungle, and

they crossed several small rivers, which they tried to match to their

maps. Suddenly ahead they saw a large river, much bigger and wider

than others they had crossed, and off to their right was a good-sized

town. The river had to be the mighty Congo, and the town was Bumba,

the largest settlement on the river at that point. From their maps

they saw that they could turn and follow the river downstream to

Leopoldville. They had five hundred miles to fly.

Late in the afternoon they raised the Congolese capital of

Leopoldville. Ford set the Boeing down gently onto the river, and

immediately realized the strength of the current. He powered the ship

into the mooring, and the crew finally stepped ashore. It was like

stepping into a sauna. The heat was the most oppressive they had yet

encountered and it descended on them like a cloak, sapping what energy

they had left.

A pleasant surprise awaited them, however, when two familiar faces

greeted them at the dock. A Pan American Airport Manager and a Radio

Officer had been dispatched to meet them, and Ford was handed a cold

beer. "That was one of the high points of the whole trip," he said.

After a night ashore they went to the airplane the next morning

prepared for the long over-water leg that would take them back to the

western hemisphere. The terrible heat and humidity had not abated a

bit when the hatches were finally secured and they swung the Clipper

into the river channel for the takeoff.

The airplane was loaded to the gunnels with fuel, plus the drum of oil

that had come aboard at Noumea. It was, to put it mildly, just a bit

overloaded. They headed downstream into the wind, going with the

six-knot current. Just beyond the limits of the town the river

changed from a placid downstream current into a cataract of rushing

rapids; pillars of rocks broke the water into a tumbling maelstrom.

Ford held the engines at takeoff power, and the crew held their breath

while the airplane gathered speed on the glassy river. The heat and

humidity, and their tremendous gross weight were all factors working

against them as they struggled to get the machine off the water before

the cataracts. Ford rocked the hull with the elevators, trying to get

the Boeing up on the step. Just before they would enter the rapids

and face certain destruction, the hull lifted free. The Pacific

Clipper was flying, but just barely. Their troubles were far from

over, however. Just beyond the cataracts they entered the steep

gorges, it was as though they were flying into a canyon. With her

wings bowed, the Clipper staggered, clawing for every inch of

altitude. The engines had been at take-off power for nearly five

minutes and the their temperatures were rapidly climbing above the red

line. How much more abuse could they take? With agonizing slowness

the big Boeing began to climb, foot by perilous foot. At last they

were clear of the walls of the gorge, and Ford felt he could pull the

throttles back to climb power. He turned the airplane toward the west

and the Atlantic. The crew, silent, listened intently to the beat of

the engines. They roared on without a miss, and as the airplane

finally settled down at their cruising altitude Ford decided they

could safely head for Brazil, over three thousand miles to the west.

The crew felt revived with new energy, and in spite of their

fatigue, they were excitedly optimistic. Against all odds they had

crossed southern Asia and breasted the African continent. Their

airplane was performing better than they had any right to

expect, and after their next long ocean leg they would be back in the

hemisphere from which they had begun their journey nearly a month

before. The interior of the airplane that had been home to them for

so many days was beginning to wear rather thin. They were sick of the

endless hours spent droning westward, tired of the apprehension of the

unknown and frustrated by the lack of any real meaningful news about

what was happening in a world besieged by war. They just wanted to get


After being airborne over twenty hours, they landed in the harbor

at Natal just before noon. While they were waiting for the necessary

immigration formalities to be completed, the Brazilian authorities

insisted that the crew disembark while the interior of the airplane

was sprayed for yellow fever. Two men in rubber suits and masks

boarded and fumigated the airplane.

Late that same afternoon they took off for Trinidad, following the

Brazilian coast as it curved around to the northwest It wasn't until

after they had departed that the crew made an unpleasant discovery.

Most of their personal papers and money were missing, along with a

military chart that had been entrusted to Navigator Rod Brown by the

US military attach in Leopoldville, obviously stolen by the Brazilian


The sun set as they crossed the mouth of the Amazon, nearly a

hundred miles wide where it joins the sea. Across the Guineas in the

dark they droned, and finally, at 3 am the following morning, they

landed at Trinidad. There was a Pan Am station at Port of Spain, and

they happily delivered themselves and their weary charge into friendly


The final leg to New York was almost anti-climactic. Just before six

on the bitter morning of January 6th, the control officer in the

Marine Terminal at LaGuardia was startled to hear his radio crackle

into life with the message, "Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland,

New Zealand, Captain Ford reporting. Overhead in five minutes."

In a final bit of irony, after over thirty thousand miles and two

hundred hours of flying on their epic journey, the Pacific Clipper had

to circle for nearly an hour, because no landings were permitted in

the harbor until official sunrise. They finally touched down just

before seven, the spray from their landing freezing as it hit the

hull. No matter -- the Pacific Clipper had made it home.

The significance of the flight is best illustrated by the records

that were set by Ford and his crew.

It was:

1) The first round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner.

2) The longest continuous flight by a commercial plane.

3) The first circumnavigation flight following a route near the

Equator (they crossed the Equator four times.)

4) The first flight to touch all but two of the world's seven

continents. They flew 31,500 miles in 209 hours and made 18 stops

under the flags of 12 different nations.

5) The longest non-stop flight in Pan American's history ... a 3,583

mile crossing of the South Atlantic from Africa to Brazil.

As the war progressed, it became clear that neither the Army nor

the Navy was equipped or experienced enough to undertake the

tremendous amount of long distance air transport work required. Pan

American Airways was one of the few airlines in the country with the

personnel and expertise to supplement the military air forces.

Captain Bob Ford and most of his crew spent the war flying contract

missions for the US Armed Forces. After the war Ford continued flying

for Pan American, which was actively expanding its routes across the

Pacific and around the world. He left the airline in 1952 to pursue

other aviation interests.

The Crew of Pacific Clipper:

Captain Robert Ford

First Officer John H. Mack

Second Officer/Navigator Roderick N Brown

Third Officer James G. Henriksen

Fourth Officer John D. Steers

First Engineer Homans K. "Swede" Roth

Second Engineer John B. "Jocko" rish

First Radio Officer John Poindexter*

Second Radio Officer Oscar Hendrickson

Purser Barney Sawicki

Asst Purser Verne C. Edwards

* Poindexter was originally scheduled to accompany the Pacific Clipper

as far as Los Angeles, and then return to San Francisco. He had even

asked his wife to hold dinner that evening. In Los Angeles, however,

the regularly scheduled Radio Officer suddenly became ill, and

Poindexter had to make the trip himself. His one shirt was washed in

every port that the Pacific Clipper visited.

This article originally appeared in the August 1999 Issue of "Air and

Space Magazine" and is reprinted by permission of the author.